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How To Use Categories To Drive Book Sales

How to Use Categories to Drive Book Sales

David Gaughran on self publishing

Lots of great tips for indie authors in David's new book

This is an excerpt from Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books by David Gaughran, friend of ALLi. Like its predecessor, Let's Get Digital, it's a great book. Not just useful. Essential.

Please note that, except where indicated, mentions of rankings and categories refer to the US Kindle Store.

If you understand how the category system works, you can give your book instant visibility on Amazon. Self-publishers are at a slight disadvantage here. They get to choose only two categories when uploading, whereas traditional publishers, depending on their arrangements with Amazon, can choose up to five.

However, many publishers don’t understand Amazon’s categories and fail to use the system to their advantage. They either don’t use all categories available to them or, without drilling down further, they choose something generic like Fiction, which is useless as a category unless you are at the very top of the Amazon rankings. Just choosing the right subcategory for your work can give your book a real head start.

Drilling Deep

There are a huge number of books in Fiction (over 750,000 at the time of writing). Competition is fierce, and appearing in the Top 100 of Fiction requires a tremendous number of sales, which will be beyond most mere mortals. However, choosing Fiction as a category is a waste for a much more simple reason: electing a subcategory of Fiction will get you into the Fiction category as well.

Even if you drill down several levels to choose something like Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Political, your book will still show in all of the top-level categories above the one you have chosen (i.e. Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense; Thrillers). In other words, when you pick something more specific like that, you are multiplying your potential visibility opportunities rather than restricting them. If your book is doing particularly well, you will appear on a number of Top 100 lists, all of which will drive further sales.

By checking the ranking of the books in each subcategory, you will get an idea of how competitive each one is. Using the Rank to Sales Estimator in the back of the book, you can estimate whether your book would make the respective Top 100. Wherever possible, it’s wise to choose categories in which you can currently compete. Indeed, all other things being equal, it’s best to choose a category in which your book will appear on the first couple of pages.

Let me give you a concrete example. Let’s say you are a romance writer who normally sells 30 copies per day of a given title. You might have opted for Romance > Contemporary, as it seemed a good fit for your book. Romance > Contemporary currently requires a Sales Rank of #332 (or around 300 sales a day) to even hit the back of the respective Top 100. But if you opted for Romance > Inspirational instead, you would find the competition a little less tough. Qualifying for that Best Seller list requires (at the time of writing) a Sales Rank of #5,325 (or around 20 sales a day).

In the case of your book, which is selling 30 copies a day, you wouldn’t just hit the Top 100, you’d be sitting pretty at around #65 in the chart, gaining crucial extra eyeballs on your work.

The Popularity lists will give you an idea of how many books there are in each category. For example, there are currently 618,758 titles in Literature & Fiction but only 5,315 titles in Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > War. Going through the various categories can indicate the relative size of each genre and subgenre, and can also help you identify a category that might provide an easier path to visibility. Be warned, however, that a very small category might not receive a lot of reader traffic. If the lists are small and stagnant, readers may not return to be faced with the same books each time.

Doubling Down

As a self-publisher, you have just two categories to play with. It can be a good approach to pick one competitive category that you occasionally qualify for, and one that is a little less competitive and enables you to always hit the Best Seller list. This way, you have a chance of front-page action in a smaller category, plus you’re covered if you have a good run of sales and start moving up the Best Seller list of a more frequently browsed category.

An example might help illustrate this point. If you have written a gritty crime novel set on an army base in Iraq, the obvious category choices might be Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Crime, and Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals. However, there are two weaknesses to this approach. First of all, they are both very competitive categories, requiring around 100 sales a day to hit even the front page of the Best Seller lists.

Second, they are both roots of the same top-level category: Mystery & Thrillers. Where possible, it is advantageous to opt for two distinct categories to maximize visibility, which is especially important when sales spike. You could keep Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers & Suspense > Crime, and choose something a little less competitive for the second.

Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Action & Adventure requires around 200 sales a day to hit the front page of the Best Seller list but others are less demanding such as War (50 sales a day), and Men’s Adventure (40 sales a day). You should attempt to identify a number of such alternative categories for each title, which will give you options when the time comes to switch.

When sales improve and your numbers make you eligible for a Best Seller list in a more competitive category (which is invariably one browsed by more readers), you should go for it. If your sales dip, you can switch back to a less competitive category so that you at least have some visibility during a downturn. But waxing and waning sales aren’t the only reason to switch categories.

Freshening Up

Sometimes it’s a good idea to seek out virgin territory. If you have had a run at the charts in your normal categories, or gained a lot of exposure from a successful free run, changing categories prior to a new promotion can introduce your work to a whole new group of readers.

Monique Martin uses this strategy regularly to great effect. Her Out of Time series could be classified as Time Travel Romance, Historical Fiction, Historical Romance, Historical Fantasy, Mystery, or even Romantic Suspense (as it has elements of each and obeys the respective genre conventions). She regularly switches categories from one to the other prior to a free run or an ad spot. This can negate the diminishing returns that writers can sometimes see after repeatedly hitting the same pool of readers. She even places different books in the series in different categories, widening her visibility footprint.

Not all books will easily slot into so many different categories. But if this option is open to you and your work, experiment with this approach. Just be careful that your book is a good fit for the categories you are playing with. You don’t want to incur the wrath of romance readers because your book doesn’t have a happily ever after.

Phantom Cats

Like virtually all e-book retailers, Amazon gives you numerous category choices when uploading your book or making changes. These are based on BISAC subject headings, which are industry standard. However, it’s extremely important to note that these don’t always reflect the actual categories in the Kindle Store.

While the system attempts to map your BISAC choice to a Kindle Store category, it doesn’t always work. This leads to the situation where you have:

  1. Categories that appear only in Books (i.e. the print book listings and not in the Kindle Store itself);

  2. International-only categories (for example, Medical Thriller was a category in the UK Kindle Store, but not in the US until Amazon recently added it);

  3. Unique Kindle Store categories that are not selectable when uploading

This inexact mapping between the BISAC-inspired choices in the KDP interface and the actual categories in the Kindle Store creates both a problem and an opportunity.

The problem comes when you select a category that does not exist in the Kindle Store, like Fiction & Literature > Drama > Latin America—as I have done in the past. While it exists on the Book side, it doesn’t have a corresponding category in the Kindle Store. It’s essentially wasting a category choice. Before selecting your categories, you should ensure that your prospective choice actually exists in the Kindle Store itself. This is really important and I can’t stress it enough.

But there’s an opportunity here too. Those Kindle Store-only categories are sparsely populated as few authors or publishers have chosen them. As there are fewer books to compete with, you don’t need to sell very many books to appear in the charts; this gives crucial visibility opportunities to books that aren’t selling particularly well, or those that have just been released and haven’t built up a head of steam yet.

For example, Mystery & Thrillers is one of the most competitive categories in the Kindle Store, second only to Romance. Appearing on any Mystery & Thrillers list is a serious challenge that requires impressive sales—something that might be beyond most writers until they have several titles out and have built a dedicated following.

However, with a little poking around in the subcategories, you can identify some that don’t need very many sales at all. Technothriller is one, and Mystery > Series is another. Neither is selectable from the KDP interface, so there aren’t many books in either category. You only need Sales Rank of #26,483 to hit the Best Seller list for the former, and #27,586 for the latter (or around 5 sales a day), considerably fewer than in other Mystery & Thriller categories. If you explore the categories, you will find plenty more.

You might be wondering how to get into these categories if you can’t select them from the KDP dashboard. It’s pretty simple. First, you must select Non-Classifiable as one of your categories, and then you must email KDP through the dashboard with the full path of the category you wish to appear in (e.g. Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Mystery > Series).

Normally, this process is painless and only takes a couple of days. However, lately I’ve been hearing reports that KDP are pushing back on letting authors into certain categories (and, indeed, restricting further the choices available from the dashboard). The customer service representatives are mistaken here, and, judging by their replies, seem to be under the impression that authors are trying to gain access to certain controlled categories (such as Kindle Singles). If you get a confusing or incorrect response, you must persist. It may take multiple (frustrating) exchanges, but you will get it resolved eventually—and it’s worth it.

I raised this issue with Amazon representatives at the London Book Fair in April 2013. While they didn’t seem to be aware of the problem, they did promise to investigate. Hopefully, it will be resolved soon. I also impressed on them the need for further specific subcategories in certain genres, and I hope that progress will be made on that front too.

Before we move on, an earlier caveat must be repeated. It’s a bad idea to choose any category that isn’t a good fit for your work. The few readers who do download your book will probably be outside your target audience, and they will likely respond with poor reviews. Tread carefully. Nobody likes being hoodwinked.

Childless Cats

In some cases, the above advice is no good because your target category has no subcategories. This can be extremely frustrating, and it’s a situation I face with my historical novel A Storm Hits Valparaiso.

The natural categories for that book are Historical Fiction and Literary Fiction. Unfortunately, however, neither of those categories have a subcategory. In the case of Historical Fiction, you tend to require a ranking of between #2,500 and #3,000 to even hit the back of the Best Seller list, which is around 40 to 50 sales a day. Literary Fiction is even more competitive, and you often need a Sales Rank of between #2,000 and #2,500 to qualify—around 50 to 55 sales a day. Given that A Storm Hits Valparaiso rarely sells at that level outside of a sale or promotion, I’m faced with a dilemma.

The logical course of action is to try alternative categories. But with a straight historical novel of a determined literary bent, options are thin on the ground. There’s War, which usually requires a Sales Rank of #10,000 to #12,000, or maybe 10 copies a day. And, at a stretch, there’s Men’s Adventure, which requires about the same. However, any time I’ve opted for these categories and was selling enough to appear high on the respective Best Seller lists, that visibility did little to drive sales. Why? Well, I only had to look at the books I was surrounded by in the chart. Readers of Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy are well outside my target market and are unlikely to be attracted to my work.

Unfortunately, this situation occurs a little more frequently than we would like. Our books aren’t selling enough to chart in our natural categories, and alternatives are too far removed from our core readership to really move the sales needle. It’s especially tough when your natural home is a category with no subcategories (where you can play in the smaller pool while you build your audience). What do you do in this situation?

Luckily, the Best Seller lists aren’t the only opportunities for visibility on Amazon. There are the Top Rated lists, Hot New Releases lists, Movers & Shakers, Popularity lists, Also Boughts, and Amazon search results. And we’ll cover each of these in turn.

Before you move on, however, I advise you to try to come to grips with the category system. It’s not something you’re likely to do on a first read, and it will take a little exploring around the Kindle Store (and getting a handle on what sales level is needed to hit certain ranks and certain genre Best Seller lists).

ALSO RECOMMENDED:  This post from historical mystery author and ALLi member,  M. Louisa Locke (though disregard information on tags as Amazon has changed this now)


Author: David Gaughran

David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in London, who spends most of his time travelling the world, collecting stories. He runs the publishing blog Let's Get Digital and his work has been featured in the Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, and the Irish Times. You can find his books on Amazon here.


This Post Has 53 Comments
  1. Thank-you so much for this illuminating article; I’m researching how book categories work (so many things to consider with self-publishing) and am caught between the dilemma that the best categories for my book are often ones people don’t look at very much. Is there an easier way to find the bestseller lists for different categories from Amazon’s homepage? I only seem to be able to get to them by backtracking from book listings in those categories! Thanks, Katie.

    1. You can use this website ebook-analytics.com to at least look and see how much competition each category has, it lists how many books are in each category. It doesn’t tell you bestseller lists but it helps to give you an idea of the size of the pool. It may be easier to be in the top 100 when there are only 200 books in that category versus 1 million. Good luck!

      Website: ebook-analytics.com

  2. How many genres can you list your book under? I thought it was 2, but I just looked at The Zealot, and noticed that it was listed in 3: Historical Theology, Christology, and History>Ancient Civilizations.

  3. I must thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this website.

    I’m hoping to view the same high-grade blog posts by you
    in the future as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own website now

  4. I think my issue is while my work is technically Science Fiction >> Dystopian >> YA It isn’t especially specific to my own work.

    I do “Dark Messiah”–a very niche sub category of dystopian.

    So this may take some experimenting.

  5. I am working on an adult coloring book. When I go on Amazon desktop site, the coloring books that are best-selling are bestselling in categories that don’t make sense, such as “Sculptural architecture.” I am assuming this is because there is little competition within that category, so the book doesn’t have to sell as much to make bestseller list? Is the category of a printed book decided when you write in the basic info of the book, or can it be tweaked separately in amazon?

  6. This was great advice. However it looks like it is outdated in 2015. I’ve been trying to “drill down” in the categories to list my new book and you can only go down 3 levels. No matter what I try. For instance as soon as you get Fiction which is the only starting place I can get Romance and then one crappy sub category. At that time it automatically pops it into the category box and asks you to choose another. I’ve tried every combination. Tried starting at something more specific. If it’s specific it stops and again pops it into the category box ie. Fiction>Gothic. I want it listed as Romance>Gothic. Gothic does not exist under Romance if I choose any of the sub-genres listed under romance it stops me there. They all end at Fiction>Genre>Sub Genre….or sooner am I doing something wrong or has all this just changed since 2013.

  7. […] Study other books you think yours should be shelved next to and see what categories they’re in.  This will help you place yours correctly.  Also, note that the categories you can choose from aren’t all-inclusive; Amazon will eventually sort your book into other, related categories based on the content of your keywords, blurb, and the book itself.  Buyer behavior also affects this.  Here’s a great excerpt from Let’s Get Visible that addresses Amazon categories in more … […]

  8. its so difficult to try and work theough the various permutations of using say google adwords and amazon categories to work out what the arket is searching for. With over a million books on the site its easy to think that its like picking a needle in ahystack for anyone to pick up on your work.
    A good thought provoking article David.. thanks

  9. I’ve been muddling around the labyrinth of Google Adwords, the Internet, blogs, and Goodreads trying to figure out the best keywords and categories for listing two upcoming Indie books, plus rebuilding my website after a nasty spam attack. One book is a spiritual guide book and the other is a spiritual-magical-realism-metaphysical-story. Whew! How do I categorize them, and keep them connected? Ten minutes ago, I told myself there’s got to be a better way than just wandering the Internet at random, and asked within,” Guide me to the information I need.” Then I came to this page.

    I am now an official fan of yours – took notes from your article and comments, now follow you on twitter, tweeted this link, bought the book. Thank you for the work you’re doing!

    On a quick side note – what comment system are you using? I like how clean it is. AND does clicking ‘notify me of new posts by email’ put me on your mailing list or do I do that on the upper corner of your webpage?

  10. “There are over 1.5 million books in the Kindle Store”! This quote (from your Amazon page on “Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books”) may sound scary to many indie publishers, But that is a basic fact about Kindle publishing which signifies the need and the importance of getting visible as authors.

    The a-b-c insights you provide above show that there are ways out to being visible on Amazon and that there should be no cause for being scared. All it demands is the commitment to follow the recommended ways.

    Thanks for the analytic manner by which you have presented your post.

    Below is a link that points to a Kindle book specifically focusing on KDP category selection. I find it to be an ebook fit enough to accompany the reading of your post above.


    1. Look at it another way: you have more options. You can see which categories you could compete in at your current level, and then switch as sales grow or dip – or when you want to hit fresh eyes.

  11. I have a question for David. If I search for magical realism, how does the search engine come up with a list when there isn’t a category for it? What do I have to have where on my info for it to pick up my book? Or is this where I need to do the non-classifiable thing?

    1. The main thing that will trigger your book’s appearance in Amazon Search is keywords, so you would first need to have “magical realism” (and, I would suggest, “magic realism”) as one of the seven keywords you are allowed choose in KDP (you get more on some of the other retailers).

      If you search for “magic realism” in the US Kindle Store you get 1,847 books and if you search for “magical realism” you get 2,302 books.

      The position you appear in for that term will depend on your Popularity Score, which I cover in the book but, in short, is a score based on how well your book has sold in the last 30 days.

      Keywords aren’t the only thing that trigger searches, but the easiest for most writers to work with. Title and sub-title also triggers Search (very important for non-fiction), but your book description doesn’t – despite what some claim.

  12. Thanks for this David, you’ll be pleased to know that I rushed off and bought your book with one click. 🙂 I found you first book really helpful and this is the best explanation of the categories dilemma I’ve come across. I didn’t know you’d written another and I’m pleased you have.

  13. We have found that the BISAC system and ISBN are largely designed for management of inventory and the subject matter reference is like a glacier. Having said that, the entire KDP and Amazon strategy is to be a wholesale distributor(a la Ingram, et.al.) to put some order to an unstructured universe of books and publications.

    Much of the big data warehouse approach with Search engines ‘Hoping’ that someone finds a particular title, is the ‘New Old thing’ in book sales, and none other than Mr. Coker of Smashwords recently told me that about 1000 of the 120000 titles in their system do more than half of all sales.

    We suggest a complementary strategy of Niche based ‘bookware’ placements and the link we supplied has some ideas along that line.

  14. Thanks, David. This is the most detailed information I’ve read on the subject and I’m just picked up your book. As to “doubling down,” I have a huge peeve with authors who slot themselves in a completely unrelated less-competitive category to hit the bestsellers list.

    My less-competitive category (which I found by accident) is “historical biography and memoir.” I’ve competed for the #1 position with a modern Dan Brown-type thriller and a modern tale of one man’s adventures in the stew houses of Vegas called “The Art of Whoring.” More than once, The Art and I have been at #1 and #2. Luckily, I always landed on top. True story.

    1. HI Debra. I think it’s a bad idea to put your book in a category where it doesn’t belong. Not only does it risk the wrath of readers (sales go up and down but those one star reviews never go away), it’s also a pretty bad strategy to seek exposure to readers who are a different group to the ones that you are targeting.

      That won’t stop some doing it, of course, but they should figure out pretty quickly that it’s not going to help them much.

  15. I read this excellent book in record time, and I changed categories for one of my books yesterday. The Family Trap was doing well in Kindle books/ Humour, but I noticed (thanks to David) there was a sub-category of Humour on the Kindle store of ‘Parenting and Families’. Perfect! I added TFT to this category and low and behold, my first #1 bestseller for this title 🙂

  16. I happened upon this method by accident (can’t have been by design!) and it means my books are visible to more people than if I’d just stuck them in fiction alone. That said, I’d had Away With The Fairies in women’s literary fiction and it had done well there, spending most of the time in the top 100. Then, for some reason, the number of sales needed to get there dramatically increased(I suspect that many publishers realised this was a good niche) and I was out in the cold and had to reclassify. I chose metaphysical and visionary fiction and it’s done nicely there too.
    I try not to worry about it all too much. I’m unlikely to ever top the big charts so I need to accept that I’m writing niche books.
    Thank you for explaining it so well; it’s good to have it confirmed I’m doing the right thing.

    1. Literary Fiction is tough. You need around sub #2000 to hit the back of the Best Seller list in the US, and there are no sub-categories where you can find your feet or catch a favourable wind before moving up to the larger category.

      Quite frankly, this makes it tough for an indie to gain traction, and they will often have to *try* and find an alternative category which might be suitable for their work. Once their sales grow, or if they have a sales spike on the horizon from an ad on a big reader site, they can switch back – at least temporarily.

  17. Thanks for the wonderful article, David.

    My frustration, as a nonfiction author, is that there is no main KDP category for Nonfiction, yet it shows up as a BISAC category. I asked an ‘expert’ last week about it and she said, ‘No, no. There is definitely a nonfiction category.’ Um, no.

    I challenge anyone to find it in the KDP category selection. For the record, I went with Women’s Studies and Poetry for my latest book, and it’s ranked on both (and interestingly, NF shows up on the Amazon rankings. Just not as a category option for me).

    Any advice? and thanks again. I’ll be sharing this with my following and clients!


    1. Hi Rachel. There is a non-fiction category, it’s just not directly selectable when uploading. Here’s the Top 100 for Non-Fiction: http://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/digital-text/157325011/ref=pd_zg_hrsr_kstore_1_3

      It’s a top-level category, meaning that if you categorise your book as, for example, Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Publishing & Books > Authorship for example, you will be in the categories of Non-Fiction, Reference, Writing, Research & Publishing Guides, Publishing & Book, AND Authorship (and appear on the respective Best Seller lists if doing well enough).

  18. I read less than 300 words and was totally sold. I have collected a small library of “how to” on Kindle eBooks and non of them explained the category selection with such clarity. My next coffee will just have to wait to be swallowed until I have ordered “Lets get visible”. Doing it NOW.

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